The Status of Jerusalem
So the Supreme Court has decided in the case of Zivotofsky v. Kerry that the Congress cannot mandate to the President and Secretary of State, as they sought to do, what country of birth will be listed on a US citizen’s passport. Congress had attempted to do so by passing a law specifically permitting those born in Jerusalem to place Israel on their passport if they wished to do so. That law, Justice Kennedy argued, is unconstitutional, because recognition of a foreign entity is squarely within the prerogative of the executive branch to determine US foreign policy.
Specifically that means that 13 year old Menachem Zivotofsky, born in Jerusalem, cannot list his birthplace as Jerusalem, Israel, but must list it solely as Jerusalem (without a country designation) because the US takes the position that it will not recognize any country’s sovereignty in Jerusalem until a peace agreement is reached between the Israelis and Palestinians that will, among other things, make that designation. (Full disclosure: though we have never met, I have had several email conversations with Menachem’s father Rabbi Ari Zivotovsky over points of Jewish Law over the years and consider him a friend).
Rather than get all hot under the collar about the slight to Israel -- and it is a slight (Congress has also passed a law proposing the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and seeking the moving of the US Embassy which is currently in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but those laws have a Presidential waiver built into them, and all US administrations to date have chosen to exercise that waiver and leave the Embassy in Tel Aviv) -- I’d rather like to reflect on the court’s position and that of our executive.
The vote was 6-3, with the court’s liberals, and its Jews, all siding with executive authority and Justices Roberts, Scalia and Alito dissenting. That the Jews, who should be political supporters of the rights of Israel, all opposed Israel’s stand here is not surprising if they voted as a matter of law, for the case is actually quite strong that in matters of foreign policy the executive should trump the congress. What is quite surprising is that the Conservative, strict-constructionist wing did not concur (Clarence Thomas did.) They should have agreed that as a matter of law foreign policy resides with the President. Not only that, but they were the ones, during the Bush years, who regularly argued the extensive rights of an executive presidency, known as the theory of a unitary executive. That they do not do so now smells like the influence of the political calculations of the Israel-supporting right wing.
If this analysis is correct -- some will certainly disagree -- it is disturbing that again (Bush v. Gore? Citizens United? Hobby Lobby?) we see supreme court decisions being driven by those who sanctimoniously insist on strict construction of the constitution in their rhetoric but vote on narrowly partisan (and therefore arguably inadmissible) grounds.
On the other hand, while it seems to me that the law sides with the executive and against the wishes of pro-Israel parties, myself included -- I am saddened that the political choices of this and all previous presidents is so narrowly political and that the President and State Department are unable to think more broadly. For while it may be the President and the Secretary of State’s decision as to what is listed on the passport, there is no reason that this must be the decision.
There is certainly legitimate dispute about some of Jerusalem, but there is also little dispute about other aspects of Jerusalem, and the President, particularly this one, is capable of such fine distinctions were he to choose to draw them. I suspect, but do not know for sure, that Menachem Zivotofsky was born in a hospital well within West Jerusalem (likely Hadassah’s main hospital, or Shaarey Tzedek, perhaps Misgav Ladakh; certainly not Augusta Victoria on the Mount of Olives). Even if the State Department wished to leave open the status of contested territories, it should be able to recognize the Israeli status of those undisputed territories. That would reduce to vanishingly few the children born to Jews in disputed Jerusalem. I would argue the same with regard to the Embassy. The US could, if the President and State Department chose, recognize Israel’s right to name its own capital in West Jerusalem, and move the Embassy there, without prejudicing the question of Israel’s rights or Palestinian rights in the disputed territories of East Jerusalem. Would that rankle a feather or two among Palestinian spokesmen or Saudi Arabian princes? They would ostentatiously say so, but I rather doubt it would in fact. They, too, recognize the reality of Israel in West Jerusalem. Some political courage on the part of our preeminent politicians would go a long way, in fact, to moving things forward. [Could the White House and State Department even, perhaps, acknowledge that there is a more than semantic difference between “settlements” like French Hill in urban Jerusalem and “settlements” like Tekoah in the West Bank?]
My feeling is that the progress we could make quietly toward narrowing the areas in dispute and recognizing the reality on the ground would move us immeasurably forward, rather than as currently envisioned, limit the negotiating chips. We don’t need more negotiating chips to bang our heads about. We need more and more de facto agreement -- until the remaining sore spots recede into insignificance.
It would be nice, it seems to me, if the Executive were to recognize that.
What is Afikomen?
Seems a silly question. We know that it is the piece of matzah, broken early in the seder and hidden until the end of the meal, which we ceremoniously unveil to eat as the last item in the seder. And that is certainly the way we use the term today. But it is not that at all, and therein lies a tale. Or maybe two.
The Talmuds, both Babylonian (Bavli) and Palestinian (Yerushalmi) ask the question -- What is Afikoman? which they seem to ask because of the oddity of the word, though they are more or less in accord as to what it refers to. The word is clearly not Hebrew nor is it Aramaic (although there were attempts in the middle ages to give it an Aramaic derivation which, of course, fail). The word is clearly Greek -- something that the classic rabbis fairly often resorted to when they wished to refer to a Hellenistic institution that did not have a clear Jewish analog. (That sort of linguistic borrowing is still going on today. In an irony they seem not to have noticed, the official body in Israel for maintaining the purity of Hebrew is called HaAcademia LaLashon HaIvrit).
There is a fairly robust academic consensus as to its derivation. There was a Greek practice, at the end of a major feast, to continue the partying long after. This practice was known as “epikomos” or “epikomios,” roughly “after banquet”. The thing is, the rabbis wanted to prevent that sort of partying after the seder, so that the Pesach story would not get lost in the after hours revelry. So the Mishnah rules (Pesachim 10:8) -- One may not have Afikoman after the Pesach meal. In fact, that should really be at the top of our minds, as that is precisely what the Haggadah has the parent tell the wise son who asked about the laws of Pesach. “Tell him the laws of Pesach, that it is forbidden to add Afikoman after the Pesach meal.” I trust we were all wise children, so that is what we were told. Besides, we all read the four sons passage every year. The Talmud (Pesachim 119b), when it asks what is Afikoman, has its discussion about what you may not do or have at the end of the seder. Rav says: you may not go out to party. Shmuel says: This refers to after dinner delicacies. R. Yochanan mentions sweets. In the Yerushalmi parallel R. Simon adds not to sing party songs. (I guess Echad Mi Yodea and Chad Gadya got shoehorned in because they were considered religious and befitting the occasion).
But all this early literature from the second and third century is clear that Afikoman is not about the last bit of matzah that we are required to have, but about something else that we are forbidden.
The first solution to this problem is simply to assume that the term was transferred from the after-dinner things you can’t have to the one after-dinner thing you can have -- that piece of ritual matzah. And that is basically the case according to the preponderance of opinion -- but has some more context behind it. For there is not, in the Mishnah that describes the seder, any such requirement of a piece of after-dinner matzah, let alone one hidden from the start of the seder. It seems that early on (we don’t know how early, but the subject is the Pesach offering meat, so this would seem to be before the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE), the custom arose to save some of the Pesach meat to eat at the end of the seder, “when sated,” as a text explains. After the destruction of the Temple, then, that hole in the customary practice of the seder would have been filled by substituting a piece of matzah. But, then, why it not important enough a custom to make the description of the seder in the Mishnah?
Still, in Babylonia in the third century, just a generation after the Mishnah, Samuel supports this custom, and, transferring the words that the Mishnah uses about the Pesach offering, says the same about the final matzah -- “One may not have Afikoman after the matzah.” But it was not sufficiently clear that he meant the final matzah, (maybe some were following the Mishnah and not doing a final matzah) -- so some wondered how you could possibly not eat (Afikoman meaning to have delicacies, that is, food) after the initial matzah, and concluded that the right version of Samuel’s dictum must be “You may have Afikoman (= food) after the matzah.” And that version, “You may have Afikoman after the matzah” might well be the source of the practice of calling the final matzah the afikoman, which became prevalent in the middle ages, and which we just assume. Voila. Riddle solved.
Along comes a scholar with a very different idea. One that has not been well received or accepted, for in truth it is altogether speculative, and academics don’t like to operate that way. In the middle of the twentieth century David Daube, a rabbinics and New Testament scholar, suggested that the custom of breaking a matzah at the beginning of the seder, hiding it during the seder, and “discovering” it after the seder, might have been an early Messianic ritual, seeing our current state as incomplete, and hoping that the Messiah will return from his hiddenness to complete us in the (near) future. Thus the final matzah would not have been in lieu of the Pesach meat, but it would have been a separate, well-known Messianic ritual, perhaps not followed by everyone, but by some. Think of our own seder that has the cup of Elijah, in the RA version of the Haggadah (though it is not in the classic Haggadah) the seder company sings “Ani Maamin” -- I believe in the coming of the Messiah, and then ends with the ringing declaration “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Afikoman, the Greek word, he argues, does not come from the Greek “after the banquet” as everyone else says, but it comes from a verb -- afikomenos -- which, while a rare term, means “he that is coming.” The final matzah, as he imagined, was a symbol of the coming Messiah and would have been “discovered” along with a declaration like our Ani Maamin or Next Year in Jerusalem. That explains, he further argued, the dramatic moment at the Last Supper of Jesus and his apostles depicted in the Gospels (it is on the first night of Pesach according to some but not all of the Gospels, and so might have been a seder), the dramatic moment when he breaks bread and says “This is my body.” If the broken matzah was common as a symbol of the Messiah -- then Jesus’ declaration might be his revelation that he saw himself as the Messiah, that which the broken matzah in his hand purported to symbolize. Now the emerging Christian church went and based the Eucharist upon this, and has everyone eating matzah like wafers which are understood, at least by the Catholic church, as God’s literal body through transubstantiation. But the New Testament is in Greek, whereas Jesus would have spoken to the apostles in Aramaic and said, not “this is my body,” but “this is me.” I am the Messiah.
If this is so, continues Daube, then it is no wonder that the Mishnah ruled, one hundred years fifty after Jesus’ death, when the Christian churches were beginning to flourish, that Jews should not do the Afikoman ceremony. Why they wiped all memory of that ritual out of Jewish memory, for it had effectively been coopted as Christian propaganda. He notes that neither the breaking of the matzah, nor the hiding, nor the eating at the end are described in the Mishnah -- and it has been noted that each of those is done in silence, without a blessing or other text to recite. As if the Rabbis wanted to discount that particular practice.
Thus when Samuel sought to support the ceremony -- which, Daube imagined had continued in Babylonia despite the ruling of the Mishnah in Palestine which had tried to quash it, he did so not aware of the old Messianic trope, but by associating the final matzah with the old rule about the Pesach meat. The final matzah really was called the Afikoman, and is not called that by mistake. The ritual we do, the old Afikomen ceremony, as Daube describes it, was rescued and repurposed by Samuel.
Am I convinced. Not officially. The academics are right that there is no evidence whatsoever of the ritual Daube imagines. But there is such richness in his imagination, and such good correlation with what is otherwise such a comedy of errors, I have to admit being drawn to it. But we are Conservative Jews, and I, as your rabbi, do not offer you a ruling, just ideas and data to stir about in your own imaginings.
Chag Pesach Kasher v’Sameach.
Rabbi Reisner, Pesach 5775
Commentary on the previous post
A new article -- actually an old article refocused on a new situation, how sad that we need to keep saying this same thing -- by Rabbi David Golinkin at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem will be of interest. It is entitled: WHAT DOES JEWISH LAW SAY ABOUT THE MURDER OF MUHAMMED ABU KHDEIR AND OTHER ATTACKS AGAINST INNOCENT ARABS? You can find it at http://www.schechter.edu/responsa.aspx
I'd like to add a few comments about his article, if I may, by way of glosses, not sustained commentary. Read his article first, then these notes will, I hope, be of some value.
1] In section II number 1 he cites a saying of Rabbi Akiva from Pirkei Avot about man being made in the image of God. In the translation in which he cites it (a standard translation) the text seems to be redundant. "Beloved is adam [=man] who was created in the image of God. Still greater was the love shown to him since he was created in the image of God, as it is written (Genesis 9:6) ‘in the image of God he made man’” How was the love greater in the second clause, which seems to just repeat the first? To solve that problem we offered what I think is a better translation in Siddur Sim Shalom (p. 266, Avot 3:18). "Humans are beloved for they were created in the image of God. They are exceedingly beloved, for it was made known to them that they were created in the Divine image, as it is written..." In the first part is the fact that we were created in the Image. What is greater in the second part is that the Torah makes us aware of that fact so that that awareness should play a part in our thinking and morality. That that awareness is not doing what it should, is, of course, the burden of Rabbi Golinkin's comments.
2] In section IV about the ways of peace, Rabbi Golinkin focuses on the ways our violent extremists disregard this principle. Due credit should be given here to the preponderant majority of Israelis who precisely do follow this principle, therefore the stories that always surprise the world about the medical treatment that Israel continues to offer the injured of Gaza and Syria and, indeed, the world. Less dramatic, it should be noted (as an IDF spokesman recently did in an article in the Times of Israel) that at the very time that Israel is bombing Northern Gaza, it continues to supply electricity there, because it understands it as a moral requirement that they treat civilians properly even as they deal with Hamas. An odd justaposition and dilemma: How do you follow the ways of war and the ways of peace in the same place at the same time with the population fully intermingled?
3] I know David well enough to know that this was not a chance thing. You might have noticed that when Rabbi Golinkin refers to the three murdered Israeli teens he affixes to their names not the common z"l (zichrono livrakha = may his memory be a blessing), nor a"h (alav hashalom = may he rest in peace) but rather hy"d. These letters stand for the Hebrew acronym -- hashem yikom damam = may God avenge their blood. David does not want anyone to think that this moral ruling is a peace-nik rant. The key word in the title is "Innocent". Here turn to section VIII where he makes the express point that vengeance is not for us, but for God. Indeed the words hashem yikom damam is a direct reference to that verse in Deut 32 that he cites there.
4] But I do not believe Rabbi Golinkin to be one of those who would say that we must wait for God to act. In section VII he speaks of the proper authority of the State of Israel (and therefore of the IDF) versus the improper actions of individuals. And in his conclusion referring to this internal problem he says plainly: The police, the IDF and the government must deal swiftly and severely with these phenomena." The same is true for him of the external problems. While it is dangerous even for a government to see itself acting as God's agent, and Rabbi Golinkin would surely explain the current campaign in Gaza as defensive, I hear a hint in hy"d that he is not unaware of the component of Divine vengeance against Israel's enemies in the unfolding of events.
What are we to think? What are we to do?
Rabbi Reisner, July 4, 2014
With the vicious kidnapping and murder of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel one is left to ask, is there no end? What are we to do?
One answer was perhaps provided in the kidnapping and murder of another Jerusalem teen, Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir. We do not, in fact, have evidence of that. We do not know if he was in fact kidnapped as a reprisal. But there have been increasing reprisal attacks by individual Israeli persons under the rubric of “price tag” attacks, and though this is more severe than those, the suspicion is great and I cannot gainsay it.
Certainly that was the sort of answer proposed by Rabbi Noam Perel, the secretary General of the World Bnei Akiva. “This travesty will be atoned for with the enemy’s blood,” he wrote, “not with our tears,” demanding revenge and proposing that we should follow the model of David against the Philistines (1 Samuel 18), striking at 300 to avenge our 3 -- posted on his Faebook account two days before the abduction and murder of Khdeir.
This sort of response is monstrous, unthinkable, absolutely unacceptable, yet altogether human. It is a primal cry of pain, escaped despite the filters of culture, morality and Torah. I would not ask that some people not feel this level of rage, but wish that Rabbi Perel had thought better of it before he posted rather than after. (He has since “apologized” saying that he was misunderstood.)
What, then, are we to do? Turning the other cheek is not the Jewish way either.
The Jewish way remains to initiate violence against no-one, but respond vigorously in defense of our own. That means, for now, still, being ever on our guard against perpetrators of terror and coming down on them hard. Those have been the orders of the Israel Defense (!) Forces at their best throughout this prolonged conflict. Surely we have an obligation to the welfare even of those who are not our own. Given a moment’s respite that altruism should rise quickly to the fore. At times I have wanted that to happen more quickly than it has. But we have not truly been given that respite and are not still. Security fences and aggressive defense with as much sensitivity as we can muster remains the only way.
Would that the Arab world would discover what could be were they to join us rather than warring against us. I recently attended a lecture by a representative of an Azerbaijani oil company drilling for Israel in its newly discovered oil field and supplying Israel most of its oil from its own oil fields in the Caspian Sea. I learned that Azerbaijan is a majority Shiite Islamic State (borders on Iran and Armenia) which somehow has managed to escape the infection of Islamic militants and choose to work with Israel for its people’s benefit. It can be done.
The Arab world may not yet know it, but that is the way of the future, not a return to a 7th century caliphate. And not, on our part, return to the bloodiest of Biblical tribalism.
A Frightening Fish Story
The general press and the deliberations of CJLS (henceforth: the Law Committee) have together flagged an issue that I have to report to you about.
In December of last year a disturbing report appeared in the NY Times (and similar on NPR and in other media outlets). Its headline read:
Tests Say Mislabeled Fish Is a Widespread Problem
(for the full article see http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/11/science/earth/tests-call-mislabeled-fish-a-widespread-problem-in-new-york.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&_r=0)
The Boston Blasts
The bombings yesterday at the Boston Marathon have yet to be assigned to a particular perpetrator, and are, in any case, an American tragedy, but it is not hard to wander into a Mid-Eastern spin without assigning blame to Al Qaeda and Islamic terrorism. My first thoughts seeing the scenes of pandemonium right after the blast were of the many such Israel scenes during the Intifada. I’m certain there have been similar scenes after bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan, though our media show those scenes less often. These are scenes of human fear and loss, brought to bear on individuals who are at no fault, by forces without a human concern, without empathy. To the enemy, as defined by the terrorist, no tenderness, only unbounded rage.
The Kitnityot Dilemma Redux
Many of you have seen, and many discussed, an article by Rabbi David Golinkin, Coservative Rabbi of Jerusalem (with roots right here in Columbia, MD) which purported to be a precis of his responsum permitting the eating of kitniyot (legumes and other non-chametz grain-like items that are traditionally not eaten by Ashkenazim, though they are eaten by many Sepharadim, such as rice, corn and beans). You have probably not seen a response posted to the CJ Voices website by Rabbi Paul Plotnik of Boca Raton, FL objecting to that halakhic position.
A word or two or more of contextualization is warranted.
The Anxieties of American Jews
Those of you who have been following Israel's recent election (1/22/13) will have noticed that it was expected to be a strong vote of confidence in Benjamin Netanyahu and strengthen the peace hawks and pro-settlement crowd. That is why Netanyahu called the elections -- he, too, expected such a result to strengthen his hand. The morning after everyone was surprised that a new centrist party, Yesh Atid, rose from scratch to become Israel's second largest party and most probably will have to be included in a coalition (coalition negotiations are ongoing -- no government has yet been formed). That means that although Netanyahu will remain the Prime Minister, his government will be forced by Yesh Atid to tack left rather than right. The issue that seems most strongly to have been moving Israeli voters was not settlements and the peace process, but the domestic political matter of army service for the ultra-Orthodox.
In this article Yossi Klein Halevi does not address that internal issue. I will look for an article to share that does that. But he does address the matter of the peace process and the manner in which the American Jewish debate lags far behind that in Israel. It is an arresting analysis.
THE ANXIETIES OF AMERICAN JEWS
By Yossi Klein Halevi 07/02/2013
A starting point of a healthy American Jewish conversation on Israel would be acknowledging the agony of our dilemma.
As I travel through North American Jewish communities, on a lecture tour about Israeli society in the aftermath of the election, I sometimes feel as though I am in a time warp.
Visiting an Orthodox community, I may find myself back in the 1970s and 1980s, before the first intifada convinced a majority of Israelis that the occupation is a mortal threat to the Jewish state; instead, right-wing American Jews will insist, Israel must continue building settlements and creating facts on the ground.
And when I visit a liberal community, I may find myself back in the 1990s, before the second intifada convinced that same majority of Israelis that a one-way peace process is likewise a mortal threat to the Jewish state; instead, left-wing American Jews will insist, a peace agreement is always within reach and just a matter of Israeli will.
And so I try to explain that most Israelis have internalized the Left-Right divide and agree with the Left’s anxiety over the occupation and with the Right’s anxiety over a delusional peace.
For most Israelis, I note, a Palestinian state is an existential necessity that would save us from the demographic threat to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state – and also an existential threat that could turn greater Tel Aviv into the next Sderot, the Israeli town near Gaza that has absorbed thousands of rocket attacks in the past decade.
Most polls confirm the centrist persona of the Israeli majority. Asked whether they support a two-state solution, upwards of 70 percent of Israelis respond affirmatively. Asked whether a two-state solution would bring peace, upwards of 80 percent say no. In other words: Israelis want to be doves, but reality forces them to be hawks.
The rise of Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party – appearing from nowhere to become the secondlargest party in the Knesset – is only the latest example of the longing of many Israelis for a centrist politics that embodies the realism of the Left about the occupation and of the Right about the peace process.
What most depresses me is that this insight – by now commonplace in Israeli discourse – comes as a revelation to many American Jews. The two most important Jewish communities in the world aren’t communicating.
During the recent election, a puzzled American Jewish journalist asked me: Why aren’t Israelis debating the collapse of the peace process? My response was: Most of us have already resolved the issue. If there were a credible partner able to contain Hamas and address our red-line issues, like the right of return, we would make the necessary territorial concessions.
In the absence of a credible peace partner, we’re moving on with our lives.
American Jews today are divided over two anxieties relating to Israel’s future. Like Israelis, many American Jews are keenly aware of the external dangers facing the Jewish state. In a Middle East that is imploding and turning increasingly fundamentalist, and with Iran approaching the nuclear threshold, there is a whiff of May 1967, the anxious weeks before the Six Day War, when threat pressed against Israel’s borders and war seemed imminent.
For many liberal American Jews, though, the focus of their Israel anxiety is on internal issues: the fraying of democracy, the seemingly irreversible occupation, the receding promise of peace.
A healthy people knows how to set its priorities of anxiety. It knows how to focus first on imminent threat. Yet a healthy people also knows that it cannot afford to allow even immediate threat to serve as pretext for denying long-term dangers. Jewish history speaks to our generation in the voice of two biblical commands to remember. The first voice commands us to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and the message of that command is: Don’t be brutal. The second voice commands us to remember how the tribe of Amalek attacked us without provocation while we were wandering in the desert, and the message of that command is: Don’t be naive.
The first command is the voice of Passover, of liberation; the second is the voice of Purim, commemorating our victory over the genocidal threat of Haman, a descendant of Amalek.
“Passover Jews” are motivated by empathy with the oppressed; “Purim Jews” are motivated by by alertness to threat. Both are essential; one without the other creates an unbalanced Jewish personality, a distortion of Jewish history and values.
One reason the Palestinian issue is so wrenching for Jews is that it is the point on which the two commands of our history converge: The stranger in our midst is represented by a national movement that wants to usurp us.
And so a starting point of a healthy American Jewish conversation on Israel would be acknowledging the agony of our dilemma.
Imagine an Orthodox rabbi, a supporter of the settlers in Hebron, delivering this sermon to his congregation: My friends, our community has sinned against Israel. For all our devotion to the Jewish state and our concern for its survival, we have failed to acknowledge the consequences to Israel’s soul of occupying another people against its will.
Now imagine a liberal rabbi, a supporter of J Street, telling his congregation: My friends, our community has sinned against Israel. For all our devotion to the Jewish state and our concern for its democratic values, we have failed to acknowledge the urgency of existential threat once again facing our people.
When American Jews internalize or at least acknowledge one another’s anxieties, the shrillness of much of American Jewish debate over Israel will give way to a more nuanced conversation.
The good news is that parts of the US Jewish community have begun that process.
Jews from Left and Right are quietly meeting across the country, trying to nurture a civil conversation on Israel.
But civility is only the starting point. The goal is to create multidimensional Jews, capable of holding more than one insight about Israeli reality. It is to translate the centrist Israeli ambivalence into American Jewish discourse.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow of the Hartman Institute and a member of its iEngage Project. Go to iengage.org.il for more information.
Simeon and Levi
“Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments of violence are their methods”.
The title is the way Jacob starts his deathbed “blessing,” an inaptly named review of his sons and their characters. The rest gets no better. “May I not fall into their conspiracy… Cursed be their anger, for it is hard….” The summary is general, but the clear reference is to the tale told in parashat Vayishlach, wherein Jacob’s daughter Dinah is taken by Shechem without Jacob’s approval, a pact is negotiated whereby the whole male citizenry of his household is circumcised (an early conversion?) and the marriage is accepted, but her brothers Shimon and Levi take it upon themselves to slaughter the post-operative, relatively defenseless men in the name of their sister’s honor. Jacob: What have you done? You have ruined me! Shimon and Levi? Are we to let him treat our sister as a whore?
Some years ago a local rabbi and educator wrote a column for JT marveling at their passion and wistfully wondering whether he could be as forceful. I responded with a letter to the editor noting Jacob’s responses and refusing to see them as a positive model. The ethics of such a mass slaughter is, shall we say, problematic. But this is an old debate. I recently came across one part of that debate and thought it would be instructive to share it.
Rabbi Judah Loeb, the Maharal, of Prague, a rabbi best known for the Golem stories, but generally well known for his muscular philosophic defense of Judaism in the sixteenth century, wrote the following in his Biblical commentary Gur Aryeh:
It is difficult: Shechem may have sinned, but the whole town, how had they sinned such that they deserved to die? But it seems that this is not at all problematic, for they were two separate peoples, Israelites and Canaanites… and it is permissible to engage in battle when one nations sets out to make war against another.
One should not see this as a matter of justice, but as a matter of warfare, and never mind if the provocation suffices, nor are there any protections for non-combatants or prisoners of war. [To be fair to Maharal, the laws of warfare and of prisoners of war had not yet been set out, and mass slaughter as a normal stratagem of warfare was culturally common in his day. The same cannot be said of those who take such a position today.]
In light of the missile fire from Gaza, and terrorism in general, there is a strong pull to a Maharalian understanding that this is war, and all’s fair. They rain death upon us. What are we to do? Unilaterally disarm? But the best of Jewish thought wants to insist that one can engage in warfare while maintaining a concern for the distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, amid careful calibration of collateral damage, and thus is repulsed and indignant about a Palestinian penchant for hiding among non-combatants for their protection, knowing that we dare not shed our moral compunctions and, in Shimon and Levi fashion, carpet bomb the Gaza strip into oblivion.
The justice vs warfare debate has been in evidence as well in the American debates about drone strikes on terrorist targets, especially American citizens [Awlaki]. May we kill them by administrative decision without granting them appearance before a court of law?
Just a few years ago, I’ve mentioned this before, two West Bank rabbis published a book called “The King’s Law” (referring to God as King), which argued that to kill a gentile, even a non-combatant, is permissible if it is to save a Jew. They based themselves, in part, on this conclusion of Maharal that all’s fair in warfare between nations. Many voices were raised in Israel, both in the secular world and in the rabbinic world, against this conclusion. But one voice speaking in its defense was that of Israeli threatrical producer Menorah Chazani, who argued passionately that the detractors of this book “oddly failed to take into account the context, that we are at war with the worst murderers, people who shoot in cold blood at women and children.” But what she failed to take into account is that she was defending the notion that we should allow ourselves just such leeway because we are at war. And if we may murder them, for this is war, why may they not murder us equally?
That has been, too often, the calculus of warriors. It is not the calculus we seek to emplace. Passion may lead there, as it did Shimon and Levi, as it does Chazani, as it has and will yet lead those so swept away to cruel and unforgiveable acts. We need to reign in our passion, not give in to it, and find another better, more compassionate way, even in war. Better yet, as a prelude to peace.
We have spoken often about the Magen Tzedek Initiative that I am involved in, and the long silences between mentions have been a result of the slow progress of the project. We have moved now beyond the vetting of standards to begin the process of recruiting companies for the Magen Tzedek seal and begun the audit process of the first of those -- but that too has proven to be a slower process in the real world than in our imaginings. This recent article appeared in the Forward, and I think it fairly portrays where Magen Tzedek is and where it hopes to go. The Hebrew expressions is: kol hatchalot kashot -- all beginnings are difficult. If we didn't believe that was the case before, we certainly do now.
The musings of Rabbi Reisner.